A poor otter family struggles to make their musical Christmas wishes come true
[UPDATE: I’ve posted the entire Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas soundtrack here for your listening/downloading pleasure. Get it while ya can!]
Many are unaware that Emmet Otter’s Jung-Band Christmas is based off a book by Russell Hoban, published in 1971.
A picture from the book, but it may as well be a storyboard
Perhaps that’s because the Christmas special directed by Jim Henson mirrors both the story and look so well, it might’ve all but replaced the source material within the public consciousness. Even the memorable certain songs written by Paul Williams come from fully fleshed out references and titles from the book.
On right, Henson and Frank Oz, who puppeteered Ma Otter
This one-hour special was produced for HBO during a break between The Muppet Show’s first and second season. Since then it has aired on ABC and Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, not only is the special shown less frequently these days, in every subsequent airing and home video release it has also suffered various edits, additions and omissions to its original runtime.
A Home Video release and the musical stage production
However, The Jim Henson Company and Godspeed Opera House recently revived the special in the form of a live stage musical in 2008, featuring people in costumes and many recognizable versions of the original puppets.
Without a doubt one of the greatest Christmas Specials of all time, and a heartwarming showcase of everything that makes the Jim Henson company special. It’s down to earth, tragic, musical, then soulfully uplifting by the end. That said… it sucks to kick this article on a sour note, but here ya go:
What you won’t be seeing anymore
Kermit the Frog. More than likely, that’s how most of you remember seeing it. Tragically, due to The Muppets acquisition by Disney, you’ll probably never see it that way again. Kermit’s intros, outros, and narration have been removed from the all recent and currently available versions of Emmet Otter on DVD.
“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub“
Although, to be fair, the special has rarely appeared as it originally aired on HBO, so we’ll look at some of the edits as we go. Plus, it’d be a shame if harping on a couple of negatives got in the way of celebrating, not only one of the finest thing Jim Henson has ever produced, but one of the more beautiful Christmas productions ever cobbled by puppet-engulfed hands.
And I do not say that lightly. Emmet Otter took a few years to take hold. As a child, I didn’t find the look of all too enticing and had little patience for musical numbers. But it eventually grew on me, to the point where I found my last viewing over far too quickly. Understand this: When I call Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas absolutely phenomenal, I’m saying that from the perspective of someone who did not watch it repeatedly as a kid, but as an adult who hadn’t seen it in many years.
These Muppets have legs
Of course, being a little older helps one fully appreciate the technical scale on which the whole production was pulled off. Song composer, Paul Williams has stated that Emmet Otter was produced almost as preparation for the impending Muppet Movie, and it really, really shows. Whereas The Muppet Show used static sets (apropos of a production themed as a variety show) the camera in Emmet is constantly moving, framing seemingly impossible shots that’ll still leave the viewer asking the question, “How the hell did they do that?!”
This is how they did that
You’re looking at a far more elaborate production here, and it’s not only perhaps the first time Henson employed remote control puppeteering, it’s one of the only times marionettes were used in a Muppet production! Right from the start, the special wows you with scenes of Emmet and his mother Alice rowing a boat down a river, and the technical feats like these remain as astonishing as ever, IMO.
Remote animatronics were used for the mouths and heads, but the boat is actually rowing Emmet
But let’s not ignore the story! The scenes in the boat are also the heart of the interaction between two characters coping with the loss of a father and a husband. They laugh, sing, and make jokes. But the harsh reality is that they’re barely scrapping by, doing odd jobs around Frogtown Hollow due to the death of Emmet’s dad.
We see the mayor’s wife screw Emmet’s mom out of a laundry bill in one of the very first scenes. This is also one of the first bizarre edits done to the production over the years. As Gretchen Fox walks away after denying payment, Alice had originally told her to go “jump in a lake!” The edit wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that it rather abruptly cuts to Will Possum saying “That’s tellin’ her, Alice.”
Without the lake comment, it looks like he’s saying “Way to go, you spineless coward.” instead of the “That sucks, but you still showed her,” aside it was intended to be. Emmet and Alice move past the shady transaction, singing that no matter how bad it all gets, at least there “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” kicking off one of the many unforgettable songs in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, as well as foreshadowing events to come.
With pearl inlay!
As it turns out, the Otter family is pretty screwed out of a decent Christmas this year. After stopping by a music store, both get the idea of giving each other musical instruments they could never afford. Emmet wants to put a down payment on a piano for Ma, and she desperately wants to purchase him a used guitar. Oh, yeah and it’s here we first meet the River Bottom Gang.
Here comes trouble
Both shrug off the items as hopeless luxuries they could never possibly afford, that is, until opportunity presents itself. There’s a talent show coming up featuring and prize money to the tune of $50! Which is a practical fortune down in Frogtown Hollow.
A Washtub band? Genius!
They entertain the prospect of participating, and we’ve seen that the Otters clearly have the musical chops to place in the competition. But once again, their financial situation denies them dreams of entering the low rent puppet version of American idol.
They weren’t lyin’ about the lack of holes
Ma seems to think she wouldn’t be able to present herself at the talent show without a new dress, yet the only way she can get the money needed for one on such short notice is to hock Pa’s old tools, which Emmet still uses to perform odd jobs for extra cash.
“But what if there was a hole in the washtub?”
Emmet’s dilemma is far more prickly one indeed. He’s approached to join -surprise! – a jug band, yet gets assigned to the worst possible instrument: The Washtub Bass. To do that, he’d have to… well, they just spent five minutes thanking the dear lord Jesus that “there ain’t no hole in the washtub!”
Doesn’t Emmet look weird without his hat on?
Obviously, that song was a bit of a metaphor pertaining to being thankful for the things they do have. Or maybe that’s just the way Emmet interprets it, because he goes and destroys the one thing his family has left shamble-free, all in the name of music most fine.
Of course, both eventually find each other backstage at the talent show, but not a word is spoken about the things they’ve sold or broken to get there.
Don’t try and tell yourself each other’s deeds didn’t occur to them. As a family who has so very little, I’m pretty sure they would’ve noticed fairly quickly what one another had done once it came time to fix or wash something.
Fuck foxes, there I said it
Yet instead of bitching or making accusations, they both root for one another and provide the much-needed support to perform at the talent show. And, oh yeah, Ma gets up there and really belts it out.
Only a frumpy fashionista could tell that’s a new dress
But let’s be honest, and maybe I’m just speaking for the guys my age with no children, but c’mon: We’re pulling for Emmet! Let’s see what he’s up against:
Spastically dancing squirrels? Shouldn’t be too tough to beat
Not sure why, but these dancing bunnies have been cut out of more than one version of Emmet Otter. Odd, because I’ve had the cornball vaudeville tune stuck in my head ever since
Wait? Who’s this guy?!
Oh crap! That dickheaded possum is singing the very same BBQ song Emmet and his buddies had been practicing to perform. Rather than give up, they tear the roof off the fucker, to thunderous applause.
Fucking love this song, but YouTube wouldn’t let me post it! (UPDATE: I’ve gone ahead and posted the entire Emmet Otter soundtrack because I’m a goddamned renegade! Listen/Download here)
Given crowd response to the other acts, you’d assume either Emmet or Alice Ma are a shoe in to take home the prize. But trouble has another name: The River Bottom Nightmare Band.
RIVER BOTTOM NIGHTMARE BAND
In any other situation Muppets performing prog-rock would be the greatest thing in the world. But it just so happens these plushie thugs, who have spent the majority of their screen time treating Frogtown Hollow like a toilet, steal the prize right out from under the Otters.
They should get an award just for teaching a snake to play bass
Fucking SIGH! Ma and the Frogtown Jubilee Jug-Band sulk home, penniless, presentless, prideless.
This should never have happened
Okay, that last “less” isn’t all that true, because if there’s one thing the Otter family knows how to do well, it’s make the best of an utterly depressing situation.
Two songs are better than one
While wondering what they could’ve done differently back at the talent show, the get an epiphany: Combine both their songs together a into one enormous, skullcrushing Supersong!
“Damn! Why didn’t you do that an hour ago?”
The ditty captures the attention of the people in the city, and better still, Doc Bullfrog has a change of heart. He can’t take the talent show prize money back and I don’t blame him. Would you risk your life and limb demanding a refund from a band of aggressive animals with nothing to lose? Didn’t think so!
The next best thing to a record deal
But he does score the newly formed supergroup a gig performing at his restaurant on a regular basis. It’s better than a prize or a handout; it’s a steady paycheck for the first time since Pa passed.
Sadly, the DVDs also cuts Kermit’s appearance in the restaurant
No more laundry jobs gone bad, and I’m pretty sure a “professional musician” can afford all the used guitars they’d ever want. Yes, even with pearl inlay!
I’ve always considered Henson stuff to be pretty nonreligious, The Bells of Fraggle Rock being ample proof of that, but not even the original songs contain any reference to the savior or even Christmas.
Nope… I wish I had a joke here, but I find the fact that Santa doesn’t visit rural otters desperately in need of Christmas cheer too depressing.
I can’t say enough nice things about Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Trust me, plenty of time had passed between my last viewing and now, so I went in with glasses 100% free of rose tint. Jug-Band Christmas still won me over on every conceivable level. The whole production remains a marvelous technical feat, and I can’t think of any other special chock this full of charm, hope and lessons on the strength you can find through depending on others. Honestly, I just wish I could hug everyone involved in the project. If you take nothing else away from the childish text I’ve vomited on rest of this page, remember this: You should really watch Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
Oh yeah, and this blooper reel might be The Greatest Thing on the Internet!
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Shop Amazon through us – it helps!)
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is available on DVD, albeit with the Kermit footage completely removed. However, the special contains several short sequences that haven’t appeared on other home video releases, and any scene missing is available to watch in the ample bonus features which include a behind-the-scenes documentary and the Outakes video embedded above. Assuming you’re willing to take a chance on Otter, I strongly encourage – no… I beg you, to pick up the version bundled with Jim Henson’s equally stellar Holiday special, The Christmas Toy for just a few pennies more. Oh, and before you go and call Disney mean names for not allowing Kermit to appear in Emmet Otter, I invite you to see what the previous, out-of-print versions featuring the famous Frog are going for on the Amazon Marketplace. You’ll get an idea of what he’s worth.